Charlotte transit plan delayed again as city looks to rebuild faith in CATS

City Manager discloses earlier text message about derailment in news filled briefing
Charlotte’s multi-billion-dollar transit plan looks increasingly likely to face another delay.
Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 3:16 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte’s multi-billion-dollar transit plan looks increasingly likely to face another delay as the chair of city council’s Transportation, Planning and Development Committee told WBTV the city is not ready to bring it to a referendum for voters to decide on.

In an interview with WBTV on Tuesday, Republican Councilman Ed Driggs said the city needs to regain the trust of voters after a series of debacles at CATS that raise questions about transparency. The planwould require billions of dollars of funding, and a new one-cent sales tax in Mecklenburg County, to build new light rail, greenways, sidewalks, roads and buy more buses.

The unlikeliness of the plan pushing forward this year was doubled down on by Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones during a new conference Thursday when he said it would be challenging to accomplish it this year.

Driggs also told WBTV that the Blue Line is safe after one of the cars derailed in May of 2022 but was kept secret from the public for nearly a year.

“I was pretty appalled,” Driggs said.

“You don’t like to be identified with a breach of trust like that and, of course, it’s on us (council) at the end of the day.”

However, Jones divulged that he had received a text message about the derailment from former CATS CEO John Lewis the day that it happened. He told reporters he did not remember receiving the ext message and that he did not receive any other notifications about the derailment, according to a review of his communications from the IT department.

Jones said the text was “something I missed.”

Jones revealed several other steps the city is taking in light of the deterioration of trust the city is working to undo at CATS.

1. Charlotte is accepting a Federal Transit Authority request to conduct an additional review of CATS. The FTA conducts reviews every three years with the last one being completed in 2022.

2. Charlotte Councilman Ed Driggs will oversee a council working group looking into the derailment and other, more systemic, CATS issues like culture, organization and transparency and report back to the entire city council.

3. Charlotte is suspending its search for a new CATS CEO for the next six months and is leaving Interim-CEO Brent Cagle in charge for the time being.

4. The city manager says he is working with city leaders to create additional resources for CATS, citing issues discovered about managing assets, infrastructure, buildings etc. WBTV has previously reported on CATS failures to manage contracts with vendors inpacting issues like maintenance of vehicles.

Assistant City Manager Brent Cagle was appointed Interim-CEO of CATS late last year and has gone about finding and divulging information about CATS that was kept hidden from council and CATS riders. That includes the derailment, overdue maintenance on light rail cars and overdue inspections on LYNX bridges and parking decks.

Cagle told reporters during the news conference that CATS will bring a third part contractor called The DiJulius Group into CATS to help understand the culture and organization and analyze more next steps.

Despite the growing list of issues, Driggs said he believes the light rail is safe for riders., noting the derailment only involved one set of wheels on one car and no one onboard was injured from the accident.

“The train came to a stop, everybody got off, no one was hurt,” Driggs said.

“They (NCDOT) did not tell us that they saw things that called for us to suspend service.”

In an interview with WBTV, Cagle told WBTV he would suspend service if NCDOT or the Federal Transit Authority raised safety issues that brought passenger safety into question.

NCDOT has allowed CATS to keep operating but under a corrective action plans that includes an aggressive maintenance schedule for the train cars, a maximum speed of 35 mph and taking eight trains with the most miles out of service.

Given the deluge of bad news coming out of CATS and the need to hire a new CEO, COO AND CFO, Driggs told WBTV the city’s transit plan, which includes pursuing a one-cent sales tax that would need to be approved by the general assembly and Mecklenburg County voters, did not seem likely to advance this year.

“In my mind, we weren’t going to be ready this year anyway to offer a referendum,” Driggs said.

“I didn’t think we had everything the public would need to see in order to be confident about authorizing all that money.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles told WBTV in November that the city needed to move forward on the plan in 2023 but has since said a re-evaluation of the plan is needed.

Driggs said in the meantime, the city should still move forward on developing the plan and getting key stakeholders from around the region involved early in what should be in the evolving plan. The lack of regional participation was previously acknowledged by city leaders.

Establishing better relations is already off to a rocky start. Driggs said he has little appetite for another third-party review of CATS at the moment. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman, who sits on the Metropolitan Transit Commission that also oversees CATS, helped pass a resolution at the most recent MTC meeting to bring on a third party investigator to look into the derailment and other CATS issues.

“We (council) will consider when and if that is helpful,” Driggs said.

Driggs said ultimately city council has authority over any expenditures authorized by City Manager Marcus Jones.

“I think we need a little more time ourselves to understand what we’re up against,” Driggs said.

In a statement to WBTV, Commissioner Altman said the news from the briefing was more evidence of the need for an outside review.

“Today’s disclosures about CATS and the City Manager again demonstrate the urgency of the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s unanimous vote last week to hire a third-party investigator,” Altman wrote in an email.

“I expect that today’s developments would be a part of the investigation into the operational and managerial failures at issue. That investigation needs to be independent of CATS and the City of Charlotte, and the investigation needs to happen on an expedited basis.”

Driggs says his focus is on rebuilding CATS’ trust with the public after the departure of three key executives and pulling back the veil on their agency.

“I think that’s what our process is going to be, is just to restore procedures and trust,” Driggs said.

During the news conference, Jones and Driggs were asked if council would consider releasing personnel records of recently departed CATS executives to help rebuild public trust. Driggs said that would only be done if “it’s clearly in the public interest” and wouldn’t be willing to set aside confidentiality concerns to do a large scale “dump” of records.